Paolo Bacigalupi is staring at his lunch.
Tortilla chips, salsa, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — thrown together in the kitchen of his home on a mesa outside of Paonia, and pretty boring by anybody's culinary standards. But Bacigalupi, a novelist with a nearly unpronounceable name (BAH-cha-ga-loo-py) and a fixation with the half-hidden horrors of contemporary life, gazes on this humble meal with a growing sense of unease.
Just what, he wonders, is he about to put in his body? Yes, it's all familiar American foodstuffs, and yet — where did it come from? Every single item came from a factory somewhere, okay, but how did it get there? The corn, the fruit — he has no idea of their origins, no real connection to what he consumes.
Millions of Americans are clueless about the etiology of their own lunch. But for Bacigalupi, what starts out as a rant quickly begins to take the shape of a story. Somewhere in the jelly is what remains of a strawberry grown in California, probably nurtured by water from the Colorado River, water flowing a thousand miles from practically out his back door to a faraway valley filled with factory farms. Water dammed, diverted and extracted so that legions of field hands and processing plant workers and truckers and God-knows-who-else can join in the humongous undertaking that ends with this mysterious dollop of dark goo sitting on his plate, staring back at him.
"If you think about it, you can start to see these extreme supply chains, the amount of technological kapow behind this simple lunch," Bacigalupi says. "A wise human would have an understanding of the supply chain and how the pieces fit together. But it's against our nature to think about it."
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Bacigalupi spends a lot of time thinking about such things, spinning dark, dystopian fables about what the world might be like in a few decades if we continue down the path we're headed. His specialty as a storyteller is the post-apocalyptic nightmare: dispatches from a future ravaged by war, climate change, an unraveling economy based on fossil fuels, breakdowns in the supply chain, technology collapsing or run amok. Grim and often violent, these are also smart, haunting tales about man's quest for survival and his genius for adaptation — not always for the better. And they have made Bacigalupi, at 37, one of the most critically acclaimed and provocative authors in science fiction today.
Until a few months ago, Bacigalupi's readers could be described as more of a cult following than a mass audience. His reputation rested on a well-received but slender body of short stories that had appeared in sci-fi magazines and anthologies and were collected in 2008 in his first published book, Pump Six and Other Stories.
Then came the release last fall of his debut novel, The Windup Girl, to ecstatic reviews. Set in a future Thailand, the densely layered work features intrigues over genetically altered food, bio-engineered plagues, efforts to store kinetic energy in giant springs — and a cybernetic geisha girl, built for pleasure but capable of far more than she knows.
"Makes Blade Runner look like it was shot on plywood backdrops in someone's garage," gushed one reviewer. Other critics hailed Bacigalupi as a worthy successor to William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. The American Library Association declared The Windup Girl the best science-fiction novel of 2009. Time listed it among the ten best works of fiction of the year, period.
The novel has since gone through four printings and been named a finalist for several top sci-fi awards, including the Nebula, the Locus and even the Hugo. (It's rare for a first novel to make the Hugo list, which is voted on by fans who attend the annual World Science Fiction Convention — and thus depends heavily on name recognition.)
Bacigalupi's following could soon increase exponentially. Hitting bookstores this week is Ship Breaker, his young-adult novel about teenagers scavenging abandoned oil tankers on a bleak, exhausted Gulf Coast after the immersion of New Orleans. Although it may seem like a strange choice for such a brooding author — imagine Cormac McCarthy's The Road retooled for tweens — the young-adult market is much larger than that for adult science fiction and seems particularly attuned to dark fantasies, from Twilight to Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games" series. Bacigalupi is already at work on a sequel, and film interest is percolating.
Everything seems to be happening at once in Bacigalupi's career, but like a lot of overnight sensations, his breakthrough was actually years in the making. Behind his sudden success lies more than a decade of toil, frustration and bitter doubts about his future as a writer — along with a pile of rejected manuscripts. Some editors regarded his work as "too dark" for publication; even The Windup Girl was turned down by several major publishing houses before it became a critical and commercial hit.
Although he came close to abandoning his career more than once, Bacigalupi persisted, drawing inspiration from his travels in Southeast Asia and the changes he could see transforming Paonia, where he spent several of his formative years and now lives with his wife, Anjula, and their six-year-old son. The town of 1,600 on the Western Slope may be better known for its mountain-framed scenery, organic orchards and vineyards, and occasional gatherings of the Rainbow Family than as a breeding ground for dystopia. But Bacigalupi considers it a congenial place for shaping his art, from the tensions in town between old-timers and "New People" to the thought-provoking ecological disasters-in-the-making reported in the environmental paper High Country News, which is based there.
Literary fame doesn't buy many drinks in Paonia, but longtime friends are taking some satisfaction in the growing notoriety of their hometown boy. "People are certainly proud of him," says Michelle Nijhuis, an environmental journalist and regular contributor to HCN. "Awards don't tend to matter much here, but I think it's an interesting place for him. You certainly have an awareness of the limits of resources that you may not have in the city."
Bacigalupi himself has detected some slight gain in his stock around town. "People are impressed all of a sudden," he says. "I stopped looking lame. I'm no longer the loser who stays at home writing while his wife goes to work."
He now has deadlines, multi-book deals, new opportunities. But don't call him happy just yet. It's a loaded term, especially when your job is to peel back the daily fictions and contradictions we all embrace, look into the abyss of heedless consumerism, feel the icy breath of the onrushing future — and try to figure out where your lunch came from.
"When we live the 21st-century good life, almost every aspect of it is predicated on not looking at the implications of what we're up to," Bacigalupi says. "Happiness at this point has a lot to do with not looking, so you don't feel complicit in some vast and awful enterprise."
Hemingway insisted that an unhappy childhood is essential early training for a writer. Bacigalupi isn't grieving over his own early years, which he speaks about warmly. But the kind of upheaval he experienced growing up certainly acquainted him with notions of alienation and unsustainable ways of living that would later inform much of his work.
Born in Colorado Springs, Paolo was the only child of a well-educated, quasi-hippie couple who were interested in getting back to the land. In 1973 they moved to Paonia with their six-month-old son to operate a communal apple orchard with another family. Elk came down from the hills and stripped the bark, killing the trees; the enterprise failed, and so did the marriage. Paolo was three when his parents divorced.
Although he ultimately finished high school on the Western Slope, Paolo spent much of his childhood moving from place to place, living with one parent or the other in Alamosa, Fort Collins, Denver, Pueblo and even Wyoming. (His father, Tadini Bacigalupi, recently retired as a sociology professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver; his mother, Linda, worked for High Country News for several years as associate publisher.) He often felt like the outsider, even when he was with old friends he knew from Paonia.
"The kids I hung out with here all felt alienated from the more mainstream culture in the area, which is very red-state and Delta County," he says. "We were a very small liberal node. In other places I moved to, there was nobody like me. I knew I was going to be the new kid, and I was pretty clear about what I needed to do to successfully manipulate the perceptions of people so I could enter into the cool groups. If you did the right things, you could embed yourself."
Sometimes the strategy worked too well. In Pueblo he found himself surrounded by older kids who got drunk in their trailers and listened to heavy metal while their moms waited tables or tended bar; Bacigalupi, a high-school freshman whose music collection at that point consisted of an Air Supply tape and the soundtrack to Ghostbusters, was fascinated. Many of his friends from that period were pregnant or married before they ever finished school. He moved on, to the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale.
A guidance counselor at CRMS described Oberlin College as a hotbed of liberalism. Bacigalupi thought that was the place for him, even if he didn't know what he wanted to study. He pored over the course catalogue and decided to set himself a challenge: learning Chinese. "Learning a language seemed like an important thing to do," he explains. "I'd heard that Chinese was complicated. I was looking for something on the fringe a bit, I guess."
By the time he finished Oberlin in 1994, Bacigalupi had made several trips to China. The first one came not long after the Tiananmen Square massacre; the country felt "very locked down and paranoid," he recalls, and he began to wonder if he'd made a mistake pursuing East Asian studies. But subsequent visits went better as his confidence in navigating another culture grew. He took an immersion language course that left him dreaming in Chinese. After graduating, he decided to find a job in China: "It seemed less threatening, somehow, than looking for work in the United States."
He worked for a few months for a Chinese company that consulted with foreign corporations trying to break into the emerging private sector. He eventually came back to join his college girlfriend, Anjula, in Boston. (They married in 1998.) But he discovered that many aspects of American life that he'd taken for granted before — the excess of goods and cars, the lavish supermarkets, even the squirrels running rampant in a park — seemed jarring.
He'd taught himself HTML just as Internet services were beginning to blossom and soon found work with a web consulting firm, but the brave new online world wasn't all he'd hoped it would be. It was, he says now, his Dilbert period, a "soul-killing" routine of sitting in a cubicle listening to marketing people explain why their depressingly similar products were unique and deserved a spectacular launch into cyberspace.
"It was all just stuff," Bacigalupi says. "I started feeling the world was just made up of irrelevant stuff. And there was something about living in the city — it all wakes up at the same time, goes to work at the same time, comes home at the same time. I remember feeling so grateful when I got my own cubicle; it was a small office, and we'd been sharing the same space. If you think a cubicle is Shangri-La, something is fucked up."
His mother had sent him a copy of The Weekend Novelist, by Robert J. Ray, a how-to guide for writing a novel in your spare time. Bacigalupi started doing the exercises, trying to shape characters and plots. It started out as a hobby, something individual and creative that he didn't have to share with other people. Something that told him he wasn't just a cog in a big, sputtering machine.
Over time he hammered out a novel. It was science fiction because that was what he'd grown up reading, from Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy to the Gor series by John Norman to the decidedly more "literary" output of J.G. Ballard and William Gibson. The story was set in China, a good excuse to go abroad again for several months to do research.
The manuscript expanded but never seemed quite finished. He and Anjula moved to Denver. When William Gibson came to the Tattered Cover for a signing, Bacigalupi decided to collar his hero and plead for help.
"I asked him how he broke in," Bacigalupi says. "He told me, 'I wrote short stories until someone took me seriously enough to buy a novel from me.' So I went and bought a copy of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a copy of Asimov, a copy of Analog. I read them all and thought, 'I need to write a story that will blow people away and do more than these do.'"
He wrote a Gibsonesque piece about a datacube that contains the consciousness of the Dalai Lama and took it to a workshop in Telluride. Novelists Elizabeth Hand and John Clute were enthusiastic but pointed out certain cyberpunk clichés. Revised, "A Pocketful of Dharma" finally appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1999.
Bacigalupi found an agent for his novel and figured he was finally on his way. But the path to respectability through the cold void of sci-fi was more difficult than he realized. The novel was shopped and shopped, to no avail. A lowball offer finally arrived, but the agent explained that if he accepted it, the book would receive a small printing, no promotion — and probably vanish immediately, forcing its author to start over under a pseudonym. Bacigalupi turned the deal down.
Around the same time, he received an unexpected phone call from the dean of science fiction.
"This is Harlan Ellison," the caller said. "Do you know who I am?"
Bacigalupi, who was mopping his floor at the time, stammered out a response. (Now 75, the prolific Ellison has had an indelible impact on science fiction in film, television and prose since the 1950s.)
Ellison had just read "A Pocketful of Dharma," and he proceeded to critique the story in excruciating detail, line by line. Evidently he'd been impressed by it, but he also saw room for improvement. And he wanted Bacigalupi (whose name, he remarked, sounded like a pseudonym or a joke) to avoid getting pigeonholed in the genre. "Don't get stuck in it like I got stuck in it," he said, and hung up.
After the many rejections of his first novel, Bacigalupi was inclined to take the advice to heart. If he couldn't be a science-fiction novelist, maybe he should try another approach. Over the next four years, between working various jobs and living off savings, he wrote three more novels.
One was historical fiction set in China. One was a highbrow "love of landscape" kind of book about Paonia. The third was a mystery with action that moved from Hong Kong to Colorado. All three made the rounds of publishing houses and were politely declined.
"I think he was trying to find his voice," says Rob Ziegler, a Paonia writer who's known Bacigalupi since they were both fourteen. "Everybody who read his stuff knew he had talent."
Ziegler remembers the mystery well. "It was clever, sharp, acerbic — and full of heart," he says. "On a line-by-line level, Paolo's very quick and can grab those precise details that make it all work. But nobody knew what it was or what to do with it. His agent shopped it, and it met with silence."
By 2002, Bacigalupi was ready to abandon his dream of publishing a novel. "When I didn't sell any of those, I kind of gave up," he says. "I was stuck with this feeling that I was just an absolute failure as a novelist."
Most mornings of the week, Bacigalupi leaves his house on the mesa and heads into Paonia, where he rents a small office above a bookstore, a block from the main drag. The room is spartan: a few books and posters and a high, small table in the corner for his laptop. Bacigalupi puts in long hours in the room. Most of the time he writes standing up.
Ziegler, his former schoolmate, keeps an office across the hall, where he, too, writes science fiction. (A story of Ziegler's won first place in a Rocky Mountain News contest a few years ago; he plans to have a novel ready for market by the end of the summer.) The two friends take walks together, discussing story problems and breaking up the isolation of the day. Occasionally Ziegler sneaks into Bacigalupi's office to rearrange things, just to get a rise out of him.
"I've always been impressed by how dedicated he is," Ziegler says. "It's a rare weekend when he doesn't go down to the office. He's there when I show up, and he's there until five o'clock. He puts in a full day. He's always been like that."
Bacigalupi moved back to Paonia ten years ago, in the midst of his series of novels that didn't sell. It was supposed to be a brief period of respite for him and Anjula; instead, she found a decent teaching job and Bacigalupi became the webmaster at High Country News, where he'd worked briefly years earlier. And he began to tinker with short stories again.
"Writing was a bone he just couldn't put down," Ziegler says. "I think he figured out that he belonged in science fiction and, in a very methodical fashion, he went about creating a name for himself through short stories."
Bacigalupi says there was no grand plan, just a need to do something. "The conclusion I came to was that even if I couldn't sell books, I still liked the process of writing," he says. "I'm less crazy and unhappy when I'm writing. And the one spot where I'd had any success at all was that short story."
Yet the stories that Bacigalupi began to produce now were more elaborate, more trenchant and certainly more bizarre than "A Pocketful of Dharma." Each one was a quantum leap in his maturity as a writer, the work of a Swiftian who'd finally found the right outlet for his savage social criticism. The first one published, "The Fluted Girl," presented sisters whose young bodies have been transformed into musical instruments, required to perform for the pleasure of an insufferably cruel and pretentious oligarchy — on one level, a satiric attack on the yuppification of Paonia.
Subsequent stories had a strong relationship to the work of environmental journalists in the area. "He was soaking up what was going on at High Country News and across the West," says Nijhuis. "I would be talking about invasive species or the effect of climate change on the water supply, and that would plant a seed. Paolo has a fierce imagination, and it never seems to stop working. He'd take that seed and he'd nurture it, and it would grow into this scary plant."
An item in HCN about a dog found wandering in a mine-tailings pit in Montana prompted "The People of Sand and Slag," a searing portrait of an age in which mankind has thoroughly adapted to its polluting ways. Indefatigable industrial workers eat sand and mine waste, regenerate limbs and engage in extreme body modification out of boredom. ("Lisa had done my glowspine, a sweet tracery of lime landing lights that ran from my tailbone to the base of my skull.") But when the crew finds a genuine dog somehow surviving in their toxic workplace, the extent to which they have lost any connection with the natural world — and their own humanity — becomes painfully apparent.
The piece was Bacigalupi's first serious effort to use the genre to convey a message beyond the exigencies of plot. "I went through these stages," he says, "from how to put together a compelling story to how to use a compelling story to say something more."
Other ecodisaster pieces followed. In "The Tamarisk Hunter," first published in HCN, severe drought has depopulated western Colorado, leaving a handful of scavengers trying to earn "water bounty" by removing water-sucking shrubs from the banks of the oversubscribed Colorado River while martial law tightens its grip:
"When California put its first calls on the river, no one really worried. A couple of towns went begging for water. Some idiot newcomers with bad water rights stopped grazing their horses, and that was it. A few years later, people started showering real fast. And a few after that, they showered once a week. And then people started using the buckets.... The problem wasn't lack of water or an excess of heat, not really. The problem was that 4.4 million acre-feet of water were supposed to go down the river to California. There was water; they just couldn't touch it."
Sometimes the stories struck entirely too close to home, upsetting Anjula, who wondered why her husband couldn't write something a little upbeat once in a while. For "Pop Squad," a grim parable about police assassins hunting down dissident women who refuse youth-preserving treatments and insist on furtively having children, Bacigalupi dressed some rugrats targeted for elimination in his own son's clothes. In "Softer," a Denver man impulsively smothers his wife after she nags him about housework. Anjula's initial critique of the story, Bacigalupi remembers, consisted of three words: "Don't touch me."
Bacigalupi's early work had been greeted with suspicion or distaste by some editors, who considered it too depressing or outrageous for publication. ("As a mother, this story disturbs me," one wrote about one of his first novels.) But as his short stories emerged in various magazines, the buzz began about a new, noirish voice on the "hard" science-fiction scene — especially after one story, "The Calorie Man," won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short fiction. Among the believers was Night Shade Books, a San Francisco-based house that published Pump Six and Other Stories.
"We very aggressively went after his short fiction collection on its own merits," says Jeremy Lassen, Night Shade's editor-in-chief. "I think Paolo is going to be as important as William Gibson. He very consciously writes science fiction that has a zero entry point. It doesn't require you to have read five or ten years of science fiction to get it on all levels."
Pump Six did well enough on initial release that Night Shade ordered a second printing. Lassen figured he would be stuck with surplus copies for a long time. But since The Windup Girl came out last year, copies of Bacigalupi's short story collection have been snapped up, too. Although it's available as an eBook and a paperback version will be released next winter, hardcover copies of Pump Six now command prices of up to $425 on eBay and Amazon.
In 2003, shortly before his son was born, Bacigalupi returned to Southeast Asia. Travel had always been a way of kick-starting story ideas, but this time he got more than he bargained for.
He started in Hong Kong and journeyed across southern China. It was the hot season, and he was scraping by on little cash, staying in cheap and airless hostels. He soon fell ill — sweating, shaking and vomiting from some vile gut bug. "I was certain I was going to die in this village in the middle of nowhere, thinking, 'This is a really dumb way to die,'" he recalls.
By the time he reached Laos, reports were beginning to spread about the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in southern China. Bacigalupi had passed through the epidemic's flashpoints, but news of the disease had been so thoroughly suppressed by the state media that he hadn't realized it until he crossed borders and found people wearing masks and treating arrivals from Hong Kong like lepers. Already inclined to paranoia, Bacigalupi became alarmed as he started breaking out in a strange rash. His hands, it seemed, were hosting some bubbly, blistery growth...the skin actually thickening as he watched. Was it the heat? Mutation? Hallucination?
He caught a flight from Bangkok to Tokyo. On the plane, he couldn't keep his eyes off a Japanese stewardess. She wore a blue mask and had a strange spray of freckle-like decorations on the edges of her eyes, but that wasn't the oddest part. Her movements were choppy, stylized, as if she was engaged in some kind of performance, a hybrid of mime or kabuki. "It almost felt like she was slightly robotic," he says.
Like a windup toy.
The trip sent Bacigalupi's imagination into high gear. He began a story that zipped past 10,000 words and kept going. It was a dwarf star, a tangled snarl of plots and characters having to do with "calorie" companies that control the global food supply and develop deadly plagues such as "blister rust" to destroy competing goods; tides of refugees trying to find haven in a battered, overheated Thailand; retro options for power and transportation to replace oil and coal, including dirigibles and giant springs wound by mutated elephants; and a Japanese "windup girl" who attempts to pass as human but whose herky-jerky movements give her away.
Bacigalupi broke off pieces of the dwarf star and published them as individual stories. But friends who saw the ponderous manuscript told him that it was starting to look like a novel.
"I remember having this feeling of horror," Bacigalupi says. "I was thinking, 'There's no way in hell I'm going to write another novel. I could keep pulling pieces out of this for a decade if I want to.' But by that time I was starting to get nominated for all these awards, and I started meeting actual science-fiction writers who did write novels. I thought maybe I should write a novel, and this was the most interesting, ambitious and meaty thing that I had."
The Windup Girl took Bacigalupi three years to complete. The finished book displays more than a passing acquaintance with Thai literature and slang, the mechanics of flywheels and the physics of climate change, in the course of presenting a panoramic view of a world in which struggles for food and energy have converged into a battle over storing and expending calories. Yet, unlike many of the short stories that preceded it, the work is more focused on its characters and enthralling subplots than on conveying a "message." The gradations between good and evil are subtler, the lives of the people caught in this evolving nightmare more complex. (The most sympathetic figure, of course, is Emiko, the more-human-than-human windup girl.) The book also skirts the kind of bald condemnation of technology so common in dystopic science fiction.
Bacigalupi says he may have a dismal view of humanity, but that doesn't mean he isn't a fan of man's cooler inventions, including bicycles and computers. "It's not technology's fault that it's devastating," he says. "We're the people who aim it in certain directions and fail to envision what the consequences of our developments are going to be. An individual car is never a problem; it's when we have 350 million of them. We're good at solving the short-term problem and ignoring the long-term consequence."
Lassen, of Night Shade Books, The Windup Girl's publisher, says that Bacigalupi is one of the few sci-fi authors seriously exploring the implications of issues such as global warming rather than using them as window dressing. "Right now in science fiction there's a strong tendency toward nostalgia," he notes. "A lot of the titles are homages to the grand old masters, stuff like that. Paolo is not writing in a nostalgic mode. He's doing for the 21st century what cutting-edge writers did in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were making science fiction important.
"Writers like [Stanislaw] Lem and [Philip] Dick saw subtle things happening that they amplified and wrote about, so that it resonated with a wider audience down the road. I think Paolo is a perfect example of that."
The day may be approaching when Bacigalupi joins the elite group in his genre who are referred to simply as novelists, without the use of "sci-fi" as a kind of warning label. Certainly, his prose is less stilted, his characters more fully realized, than those of Dick or some of the other prophets of an earlier generation.
"I'm his buddy, so my opinion of him might be considered inflated," says Ziegler. "But I think of him as this generation's Aldous Huxley. He's writing literature, and science fiction just happens to be the best genre for him to communicate what he needs to communicate."
The paperback edition of The Windup Girl is slated to hit stores May 15, just in time to piggyback on the attention surrounding the release of Ship Breaker, Bacigalupi's first foray into the young-adult market. It's a stripped-down chase novel starring clipper ships that use cannon-fired parasails and a budding romance between a capitalist princess and a tough dude from the wrong side of the shipyards — but its adolescent elements aren't so overwhelming as to drive away not-so-young adult readers, too.
The novel was written in a magical month, during a welcome respite from The Windup Girl. "It just felt like it wrote itself," Bacigalupi says. "It was a perfect synergy of ideas I was kicking around, trying to make green technology cool and reach the young-adult market. It was also an opportunity for me to use writing as play rather than work.
"A lot of what I write is so grim and depressing. The stories are designed to hurt. And when I'm writing them, I also feel hurt. It's hard to do. This was an opportunity to write a story that wasn't about hurt, and it felt good."
If Bacigalupi has learned anything from his own journey into darkness, it's that even dystopic writers must have their fun now and then. Last summer he was invited to speak at a symposium on sustainability in Kyoto, Japan. He marveled at the irony of such an invitation, the absurdity of flying halfway around the world to talk about reducing your carbon footprint — then embraced the hypocrisy and took the free trip.
He now has a major publisher (Little, Brown) and potentially a much larger audience in the young-adult field than he's ever enjoyed before — so large, in fact, that Night Shade signed him to a two-book deal to ensure that he keeps writing adult novels, too. ("I knew I had to put significant money on the table to keep him writing science fiction for me," Lassen says.) Yet he frets about how best to get children, especially boys, to read books, and whether his 1,500-square-foot house is too much dwelling for three people.
He agonizes over the trade-offs of raising his son in a place like Paonia. It's nice to run into people, he says, except when you don't want to see them.
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"There are so many layers to living in a small town," he says. "The beauty of community, that you're connected up to all these people, is also the biggest pain in the ass. You lose anonymity. You lose some spontaneity, because what you do today is going to be remembered by everybody tomorrow. History never gets erased in a small town."
But history is not destiny. In the works of Paolo Bacigalupi, change often trumps history. Change can be painful and terrifying, but it must be endured. It cannot be stopped.
And what's so bad about change, anyway? It's not like it's the end of the world.